Biblical art curricula for small groups

As a dedicated church member and art enthusiast, I’m thrilled to see products popping up that are designed to lead church groups—Sunday school classes, outreach classes, midweek Bible-study classes—through masterworks of religious art, fostering visual literacy and an appreciation for the church’s rich cultural heritage. Last year, two of these were released: Imaging the Story: Rediscovering the Visual and Poetic Contours of Salvation by Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini and “Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story” from London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields. These come after the Through Artists’ Eyes series of Bible-study guides published in 2010 by Standard, which shares a similar intent.

While these are far from the only books/written materials available on the intersection of Christianity and the visual arts, they are among the very few that were created with group participation in mind, which means that discussion questions and/or activities are provided. (Of course, you can go through them as an individual, but a group approach would probably prove more fruitful.) Furthermore, they do not assume any previous knowledge of art history, making them suitable for your average churchgoer. All three reproduce the images in full color and, while not obviously sectarian, were written by Protestants.

Despite the common aim to use biblical art to inspire deeper engagement with scripture, each product takes a different approach. Here I’d like to offer some comparative reviews so that you can decide which curriculum, if any, is right for your small group. (Note: I read these on my own, not with a group, so I cannot offer feedback on the group experience.) I hope these inspire even more offerings in the same vein so that churches will have a wealth to draw from.

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Imaging the Story: Rediscovering the Visual and Poetic Contours of Salvation
Authors: Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini; foreword by W. David O. Taylor
Publisher: Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock (Eugene, Oregon)
Year: 2017
Product format: Paperback or Kindle
Number of sessions: 10

Imaging the Story

Each of the ten chapters of this book has four primary components: Read, Respond, Reflect, and Make. Like the other curricula, this one brings together scripture texts, visual art, and discussion questions—but unlike the others, it also integrates poetry, and, most notably, places emphasis on making. Projects include mosaic tiles, breviaries (using cards bound with ribbon), still lifes, and others that are even more open-ended, inviting the use of any media, including words. An appendix advises on how to mount an exhibition of the art produced during the course.

One of the authors, Gill, is herself a visual artist; the cover image is a painting of hers, titled Incarnation. Her coauthor, Karen, is a preacher, writer, and former lecturer in English literature. “Making something and then setting it free,” they write,

is to share in something of our Creator’s own respect for what he makes. If God allows his creation to be enjoyed—and interpreted—by others, then we too can set what we make free (be they poems, paintings, sculptures, children, sermons) for others to receive, or reject, as they will. This may seem a risk, but it is one our Creator took long ago! (12)

Because of this emphasis on making, and also because of the discussion of artistic vocation woven throughout, I would recommend this book to artists or “creative types.” The project instructions are clear enough that even those who aren’t accustomed to art making could complete them, and I appreciate the desire to get readers to exercise their own imaginations, but I think “noncreatives” would be resistant to this form of scripture exploration, and probably too self-conscious. It might work for those who already have the inclination to try, but I do not see it working for every small group.

I am not an artist, so I admit, I forwent the art projects, but even without that component, there is still a lot of rich substance in the book. I especially like how the authors guide the reader in looking at a variety of art images—a mixture of famous works throughout history, like Michelangelo’s Awakening Slave and Munch’s The Scream, and contemporary pieces from their circle of artist friends in the Grünewald Guild. Viewing art, they contend, can support the act of interpreting scripture:

One way to enliven biblical exegesis is to read a passage, take time to look at a painting or other artistic interpretation, then return to the text to see how the imaginative encounter has permitted fresh insights. This is a form of artistic midrash (mid, meaning to seek out, rash, meaning to inquire) that still has deep respect for the text. (126–27)

(Yes! This is precisely the approach I use in the Artful Devotion series.)

All the images in the book were chosen with intention and serve to bolster the story line of scripture. And to these are added insightful extracts from poems and theological prose, as well as questions to engage.

Also included throughout is a soft defense of the arts, including a corrective against the thinking that God calls only artists to care about art. Writing about the decoration of the Jewish tabernacle:

Note that everyone participates in the artistic venture—it is not for perceived creatives or for those who choose this activity over another. God invites all the Israelites, via Moses, to offer something in the way of materials in a very accessible manner. The list in Exodus 25:3–7 comprises precious as well as expensive items (“gold, silver, and bronze”) and also readily available ones (“goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood”). (134–35)

In other words, all of Israel was involved in supporting the arts, in ways both large and small.

Imaging the Story succeeds in stoking excitement for the gospel story through the arts, which the authors ably trace from Genesis to Revelation, pausing along the way with prompts for personal reflection and/or group discussion. For example, the questions in the chapter on Christ’s conception include:

  • What is Mary’s spiritual and mental state in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation?
  • What good news has God “announced” to you?
  • How easy do you find it to nurture a conception in the dark? How might you create a “photographic darkroom” or “nest” in which your own creativity can develop?
  • Why was it so important for Mary to find an Elizabeth?
  • Do you have an “Elizabeth” in your life? Would you like to pray for one?

My one grievance is that there are quite a few copyediting and proofreading mistakes, which became distracting, including typos, comma splices, and inconsistent heading and caption styles and name spellings.

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Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story
Authors: Richard Carter, Jonathan Evens, Katherine Hedderly, James Johnston, Alastair McKay, and Chloë Reddaway
Publisher: St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in association with the National Gallery (London)
Year: 2017
Product format: Digital downloads (PDFs and PowerPoints)
Number of sessions: 22, divided into three terms

This discipleship course was developed by St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a historic Anglican church in the heart of London, in association with the National Gallery, conveniently located just across the street. Divided into twenty-two hour-long sessions, it uses paintings from the Gallery’s collections as a springboard into discussion of key elements of the Christian story and their personal implications. Two of the driving questions are “What does it mean to follow Jesus today?” and “How can I deepen my faith in God?”   Continue reading “Biblical art curricula for small groups”

If It Had Not Been (Artful Devotion)

Great Migration 54 by Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence (American, 1914–2000), The Migration of the Negro (panel 54), 1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 × 12 in. (45.7 × 30.5 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
if it had not been the LORD who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!

Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

—Psalm 124

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SONG: “If It Had Not Been for the Lord” | Words and music by Margaret Pleasant Douroux, 1980 | Performed by Lynda Randle (vocals) and Andraé Crouch (piano), 2001


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 21, cycle B, click here.

Advent Materials

Advent begins December 2, and Christian resource providers have already started releasing content for the season so that you can start adapting and programming it into your church services or family devotional practices, if desired. Here are three sets plus a Kickstarter campaign that caught my eye.

from SALT PROJECT

SALT Project Advent
Photo by SALT Project

SALT Project is a faith-based media company dedicated to creating beautiful visual content, especially video, for churches and other clients. Below are three of the five videos they’ve put together for Advent, which can be purchased and customized for church use. The videos feature a few products, like illustrated Advent calendar notecards (with daily tasks like “Deliver sweets to a neighbor” or “Write a thank-you letter to God”) and coloring pages and posters inspired by Mary’s Magnificat, available for download from SALT’s online shop.

I love their aesthetic! (These videos make me really excited for Advent.) I also appreciate how the devotional activities can be done either as an individual, a family, or a congregation. Click here to see a roundup of all five videos, and be sure to also check out Advent in Full Color, a devotional booklet that features poetry by Mary Oliver and Howard Thurman, daily practices, scripture texts, meditations on the season’s key theological themes, and coloring pages.

To subscribe to SALT’s weekly e-newsletter (which I highly recommend!), scroll to the bottom of this webpage; you can also follow them on Facebook @SALTyProject.

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from REFORMED WORSHIP

The cover story of the September 2018 issue of Reformed Worship magazine is “Advent in Narnia: An Invitation to Biblical Explorations Beyond the Wardrobe” by Cindy de Jong, which chronicles how seven different churches, including the author’s, used The Chronicles of Narnia last year to draw out some of the themes of Advent. In most cases this involved a six-week sermon series, or a service of lessons and carols, that integrated references to C. S. Lewis’s classic tale. At first I was skeptical of keying sermon series to a work of fiction, allegorical though it may be, but it turns out the worship service plans (reproduced in the article) were intelligently done, letting scripture drive and Narnia serve as a supplement to amplify God’s truth. One contributor even mentioned the need to be careful to not let Narnia be the focus; it can provide structural support but should not constitute the core of the sermon nor the worship service.

Reformed Worship cover

“The whole of Advent is this,” de Jong writes: “awaiting the birth of the Christ child in the same way we wait for the return of Christ’s kingdom. The whole of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe covers the same: waiting for Aslan and waiting for the triumph of Narnia.” Service plans, including songs, sermon titles and notes, Narnia references, and confessions, are included in the article with varying specificity. Though all drawing on the same text, there is a surprising diversity of approaches. Also included are ideas for how to decorate the sanctuary, how to engage children, and how to introduce the book and the sermon series to the congregation. Two additional books that are recommended are Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season by Heidi Haverkamp and The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia by Rowan Williams.

Besides this eleven-page article, this month’s issue also includes an Advent reading for three voices by Joyce Borger, titled “What If . . . ?,” that reflects on the Flight to Egypt in light of today’s immigration debates, as well as an Advent worship service series that includes calls to worship, Advent readings, scripture texts, sermon themes and outlines, and song suggestions for five weeks’ worth of Sundays.

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from ADAM FARBIARZ via KICKSTARTER

Designed for daily use during December, One Night: An Advent Calendar is a large foldout storybook that reimagines Luke’s nativity narrative through the eyes of a shepherd. Printed on heavyweight paper wrapped around millboard, the product takes the form of a freestanding triptych with twenty-four numbered doors that open to reveal snippets of story. I’ve seen the mock-up, and it looks like a really quality endeavor, something for the whole family to enjoy (it’s pitched to adults but accessible to children). Help the creative team fund printing costs by contributing to their Kickstarter campaign in exchange for your own calendar in the mail by the end of November. Text and direction by Adam Farbiarz, illustrations by Rachael Clarke Hendel, hand lettering by Rachel Farbiarz, and design by Lizzie Stone.

One Night Advent calendar

One Night Advent calendar

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from THE HOMELY HOURS

These resources were published over the last few years, but I just found out about them this summer. Run by churchwomen from Christ the King Anglican Church in Dayton, Ohio, The Homely Hours is a website created out of a desire to encourage a deeper integration of the life of the church into the life of the home. It’s treated not so much as a blog (it’s not continually updated) as it is a repository, so search through the tabs and archives for creative ideas to celebrate the liturgical seasons in the domestic sphere.

Advent plans include Advent-wreath prayers, Jesus-tree ornaments, St. Nicholas Day treat bags, Advent Saints and Life of Mary coloring pages, a printable St. Lucy’s crown, poems, and more—all free. As a reminder that the observance of Advent with one’s family does not necessitate perfect planning or novelty or “lots of” (quite the contrary), see “If I handcraft artisan shoes for St. Nicholas Day but have not love . . .”

St. Nicholas treat bag
St. Nicholas Day treat bag by Bley Hack/The Homely Hours
Life of Mary coloring page
Life of Mary coloring page (detail) by Michelle Abernathy/The Homely Hours

Resist (Artful Devotion)

Prayer by Arcabas
Painting by Arcabas (French, 1926–2018)

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

—James 4:7

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SONG: “Way Down in the Hole” by Tom Waits, on Franks Wild Years (1987)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 20, cycle B, click here.

Preaching Skies (Artful Devotion)

Untitled (No. 29) by Fumihiro Kato
Fumihiro Kato (Japanese, 1958–), Untitled (No. 29). Oil on canvas, 91 × 116.7 cm.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

—Psalm 19:1–6 (ESV)

God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.

Their words aren’t heard,
their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
unspoken truth is everywhere.

God makes a huge dome
for the sun—a superdome!
The morning sun’s a new husband
leaping from his honeymoon bed,
The daybreaking sun an athlete
racing to the tape.

That’s how God’s Word vaults across the skies
from sunrise to sunset,
Melting ice, scorching deserts,
warming hearts to faith.

—Psalm 19:1–6 (The Message)

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SONG: “The Spacious Firmament” | Words by Joseph Addison, 18th century | Music by Herbert Sumsion, 20th century | Performed by the Ecclesium Choir, 2005

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.

The unwearied sun from day to day
Does his Creator’s power display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth:

Whilst all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings, as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid their radiant orbs be found?

In reason’s ear they shall rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Sumsion’s setting of Addison’s hymn text for SATB and organ is beautiful, but it’s too complex for congregational singing. For those of you who want to introduce this hymn to your church with a more singable melody, there are two precedents: you could use either LONDON by John Sheeles, composed around 1720 (listen here), or CREATION, taken from the chorus “The Heavens Are Telling” in Haydn’s 1798 oratorio The Creation (adapted, e.g., in The Hymnal 1982 #409).


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 19, cycle B, click here.

Roundup: Aretha Franklin, Berenice Rarig, and more

Last week I returned from a two-week trip to western Europe, where my husband and I spent time in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, and Porto Cristo), southern France (Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles), and Italy (Florence, Rome, Pompeii, and Amalfi). We had only a little time in each city, but wow, what beauty! I’ll be going through our photos soon and sharing some on the blog. In the meantime, here’s one Eric took outside Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseilles, a basilica built atop a 489-foot-high limestone outcropping that overlooks the Old Port.

Veronica and Christ (Marseilles)
Veronica and Christ, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseilles, France. Photo: Eric James Jones.

The stone sculpture, from the twentieth century, shows Veronica (an apocryphal saint) wiping Christ’s brow on his way to Calvary. Her gesture of compassion is meant to symbolize the action of missionaries, to whom the sculpture is dedicated.

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While I was gone, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, passed away. Like many soul singers, she got her start singing gospel, and her 1972 album Amazing Grace, recorded live from New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, is the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time. Below you can watch her perform the title track, a hymn classic, in 2014.

Many famous singers and musicians paid tribute to Franklin at her eight-hour-long funeral on August 31. One of my favorite performances was Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” on harmonica.

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NEW ON ARTWAY: ArtWay is a web publication I contribute to that seeks to connect Christians to the rich history and contemporary practice of visual art. Last Sunday I wrote a visual meditation for the site on Bill Viola’s video piece Emergence, which references a Man of Sorrows painting by Masolino.

Emergence by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Emergence (still frame), 2002, from The Passions series. High-definition video master tape. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Along with the other editors, I also curate items for ArtWay’s Poetry section. Most recently I selected a poem by Abigail Carroll titled “Dear Wounded Saint,” based on a Caravaggio painting of St. Francis of Assisi. Carroll is a brilliant poet, and I heartily recommend her two collections, Habitation of Wonder (2018) and A Gathering of Larks (2017).

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy by Caravaggio
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, ca. 1595. Oil on canvas, 92.5 × 127.8 cm (36.4 × 50.3 in.). Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

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ARTIST INTRO: A chain of connections brought me into contact with Berenice Rarig, an Australian artist whose work comprises installation, performance, sculpture, and photography. In addition, she is the founder of MAKE Collective, an initiative of the Presbyterian Church in America’s missionary arm that helps creatives become part of international church-planting movements through cultural engagement, creative thinking, and artistic excellence. As she was visiting the Baltimore area last week, we got lunch together and shared our visions for our respective ministries.

I loved learning about Berenice’s unique approach to art as mission. “My role as an artist is to point to what’s already pointing,” she says. “I join St. Augustine who said, ‘Everything in creation points to the Creator.’”

> Read an interview with Berenice Rarig from 2006, published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of Faith and the Arts.

Here is a video-recorded lecture she gave at the Mumbai Arts Conference in 2015; it’s titled “Imaging Grace.” In it she explains the three works of hers pictured below, and others. Wishbones, quail eggs, and coffee filters—that gives you a sense of the kinds of materials she likes to work with. She had a load of donated clock parts in her trunk when I was riding with her, which she is excited to tinker with for her next art project.

Cathedral de St. Icarus the Wishful by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), Cathedral de St. Icarus the Wishful, 2012. 50,000+ wishbones, wire frame, and lights, 9 ft. high.
A Tiny Hum by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), A Tiny Hum (Humanity) 3, 2012. Quail eggs and wire.
Whispered Prayers by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), Whispered Prayers, 2001. Folded coffee filters.

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PATRONAGE OPP: Monthly worship services by Liturgy Fellowship: I just became a patron of Liturgy Fellowship and am excited to see what they turn out! “We are starting a new project. Every month we are going to invite a guest liturgical artist to write a worship service for us. The themes will vary from biblical themes, to the church calendar, to under-served topics. If things go well we will also try to invite others to write original songs and create art to go along with the service theme. This will (hopefully) grow into a fantastic resource for the church!”

Ephphatha (Artful Devotion)

Healing of the Deaf (9th c)
Healing of the Deaf Man, ca. 830. Fresco, north wall of nave, Church of St. John, Müstair, Switzerland.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

—Mark 7:31–37

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Deaf people represent one of the largest groups worldwide that is unreached and unengaged with the gospel, with an estimated 2 percent of the world’s seventy million being followers of Christ. Thankfully, in Kenya, Deaf Christian leaders are bucking this statistic, translating scripture into Kenyan Sign Language and accessible art forms, like drama, dance, and drumming.

In the video below, Pastor Benard Mburu Mwangi Thuku presents four works he commissioned from Deaf friends, all rooted in Sunday’s Gospel lectionary reading. (Thanks to Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship for bringing this video to my attention!) Created by and for the Kenyan Deaf community, the song at 5:41 consists of loud drum beats—whose vibrations can be felt by Deaf people—that accentuate three men’s rhythmic signings of the story of Jesus’s healing of the deaf man of Decapolis; you can hear the emotional responses of the offscreen audience. This performance is followed by a brief lesson in dialogue format.


This video, posted on Facebook by Michelle Petersen, is excerpted from a class on scripture engagement that was held July 25, 2016, at the Canada Institute of Linguistics, originally a department of Wycliffe Bible Translators. To adjust the volume, click the megaphone icon on the far right.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 18, cycle B, click here.